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One From the Archive: ‘A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France’ by Miranda Richmond Mouillot ****

First published in February 2015.

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’.  In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.

9780804140669A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused.  Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.  Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children.  They never met again’.

In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’.  The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them.  Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’.  These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.

A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye.  She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’.  She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency.  She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’.  Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.

From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously.  The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth.  She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home.  A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.

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‘The Nine Hundred: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz’ by Heather Dune Macadam *****

I studied the Second World War and the Holocaust extensively whilst at school and University, and have been lucky enough to visit Holocaust museums and memorials all around the world, from Poland and Hungary to Australia. It is a subject which I keep coming back to, time and again, particularly as more scholarly books and works of memoir are published. As an historian, it is so important to me to learn as much as I can about different periods in history, and about the many causes and triggers which led to a particular situation.

In The Nine Hundred, Heather Dune Macadam has chosen to focus upon a particular instance and group of women whom I knew little about – those who were sent on the first official Jewish transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Poprad, Slovakia, in March 1942, almost one thousand young and unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, boarded a train. They were “asked” to ‘commit to three months of government work service’, and believed that they were going to be working in a factory, before coming back to their families. With a ‘sense of adventure and national pride’ they set off. Only later did they realise what was in store for them, and many had to watch whilst their families were also forced to Auschwitz, and sent straight to the gas chambers. By the end of 1942, two thirds of the women on this first convoy had been murdered, and just a handful survived the war.

The Slovakian government despicably paid 500 Reichsmarks – or about £160 or $200 apiece – for the Nazis to take these young Jewish women away, and use them for slave labour. As news travelled slowly around rural Slovakia at that time, the announcements were staggered, and no immediate warnings could be made before more women were taken away. Macadam writes: ‘All over Slovakia, the same notices were being posted and simultaneously heralded by town criers clanging brass bells or banging drums. The only variable between communities was where the girls should go: firehouse, school, mayor’s office, bus stop. The rest of the news was the same…’.

Relatively little is known about this initial transport, but Macadam has pieced together so many sources, from consulting with historians to the relatives of these first deportees. She has also interviewed as many survivors as she could firsthand. She writes that knowing about these women is ‘profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war… Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish – but also because they were female.’

The foreword to the volume has been written by historian Caroline Moorehead, whose book, A Train in Winter, I loved. She comments that in The Nine Hundred, Macadam ‘has managed to re-create not only the backgrounds of the women on the first convoy but also their day-to-day lives – and deaths – during their years in Auschwitz.’

Alongside the wider historical context, which she covers excellently, Macadam has taken the decision to focus upon as many of the individual women in this transport as was possible. This means that what we read as a result is concurrently a shared experience, and a solitary one. In her author’s note, Macadam explains: ‘This book would not be a memoir… It would be about all of them, or as many as I could find information on and fit into this complex history.’ She goes on to write: ‘It is a great honor and privilege to be a part of these women’s histories, their champion and their chronicler.’

I liked the way in which Macadam has structured The Nine Hundred. It is a work of non-fiction, but some of the writing reads more like that of a novel, allowing one to become involved with the individuals immediately. Macadam begins her narrative in the incredibly cold winter of 1942, just before the girls were snatched from their homes. At this time, rumours were beginning to fly around Slovakia’s small towns and villages: ‘Flames of doubt and uncertainty were quenched by reason. If the rumor was true, the most reasonable said, and the government did take girls, they wouldn’t take them far away. And if they did, it would only be for a little while. Only for the spring – when and if spring ever arrived. If, that is, the rumor was true.’ Macadam goes on to recap many of the restrictions and laws made against Jewish people in Slovakia before this point, which ranged from being ‘forbidden to reside on any main street’ in a town, and being banned from having pets, to having to deposit their fur coats with the right-wing Hlinka Guard, and the denial of operations at any hospital.

The Nine Hundred is an invaluable resource, which has a real quality of immediacy about it. It goes without saying that the content of Macadam’s book is shocking and horrific, and I did find some of it very difficult to read. The author demonstrates real strength in setting the scene, and in giving appropriate background information whenever it is needed. One gets the sense, from the very beginning, that Macadam cares deeply about each of these girls, and she handles the portrayal of each expertly. The Nine Hundred is heartbreaking, but learning about these brave women, many of whom were forced to abruptly grow up and face so many horrors, is a powerful and moving privilege.

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‘Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage’ by Kathleen Winter ****

As is so often the case, I had had my eye on Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage for an age before I purchased it. I first read Winter years ago, when her novel, Annabel, was selected as the first choice for the in-real-life book club that I was a member of. I got a great deal from it; many others did not. Boundless is certainly a very different book, but for me, it was just as enjoyable, and just as memorable.

In 2010, Winter – who lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now resides in Montreal – took ‘a journey across the legendary Northwest Passage’ in a Russian icebreaker. She travelled from the southwest coast of Greenland to the largest island in Canada, Baffin Island. On her extended trip, on which she was invited at the last minute to make up the journalist contingent, she encountered a great deal of things, many of which were troubling. She saw, firsthand, the effects of climate change on small and isolated communities, and also the difficulties between balancing the traditional cultural elements of Inuit populations with the advances of the modern world.

When she embarked on this journey, Winter had just turned fifty. At the point at which she is invited on the trip by a writer friend, who cannot make it after all, she reflects: ‘I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought… of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.’ She goes on: ‘For a writer, loneliness is magnetic. The very names on the map excited me… I knew that to go to these places would activate something inside me that had long lain dreaming.’

People from all walks of life are passengers on the ship. The majority of those on board are men, many of whom sport ‘explorer-type beards’. However, alongside Winter, there is a Canadian Inuk woman, and a Greenlandic-Canadian, both of whom are set upon cultivating interest in their communities. Winter writes that to these two women ‘fell the task of teaching us about the North from the perspectives of Inuit women who have lived there all their lives – women who have come to know its animals, plants, and people, both indigenous and visiting, through long experience.’ I found the portions where she writes about these women quite fascinating.

Whilst much of the ship is rather luxurious, her own accommodation arguably leaves something to be desired: ‘Higher up, through open doors, I had seen passengers’ deluxe cabins with big windows looking out over Baffin Bay. By the time I descended to my own little cabin, there were tiny portholes, and when I pressed my nose to the glass, there lay the sea surface at the level of my rib cage.’ However, she quite wonderfully sees everything as an adventure; she reasons that she will only be sleeping in her little cabin, and will largely be exploring, or talking to others on deck.

I admired the commentary which Winter gives; in it, she captures a great deal. When they first reach Greenland by plane, she comments: ‘Our bus had rounded a corner in the crags of Kangerlussuaq [a small town in the west of the country], and there in the bay was our ship, floating so crisp and blue and white it looked as if someone had ironed and starched it into one of those three-dimensional pop-up picture books that had enchanted me when I was a child.’

The descriptions which Winter gives of her surroundings are highly visceral. She writes, for example: ‘As we sailed into Disko Bay, ice floated in silence, quiet green-greys leading to whites and back to blues. There was no sign of any human, only reflections of ice and sky and northern sea, and the light held a low frequency that lent ice and sky and water a glow both incandescent and restrained.’ Later, she tells us: ‘The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord.’

Winter translates the awe which she feels regarding the landscapes around her with a great deal of care, and makes us so aware of the physical landscape. She describes the way in which: ‘We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses – so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours.’ Sometimes, in fact, she finds words quite redundant. She comments: ‘I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.’

The Northwest Passage is a fascinating, and still relatively unexplored, region. Winter comments: ‘It would later be revealed that even our captain’s navigational charts did not tell the complete truth about what lay ahead of us, since much of the Arctic remains uncharted and the land, wind, and ocean themselves are forever in flux’. The original plan for the trip was to follow Roald Amuldsen’s first successful route through the Northwest Passage, but this did not quite go to plan.

The very name of the passage is problematic; it was given the moniker by colonisers, and is known as other things entirely to those who live alongside it. I appreciated the time which Winter gave to discussing this fact. She draws attention to the vast differences between explorers, who see a region briefly and seem to think they then have dominion over it, and those who have called it their home for centuries. Often, in the communities which Winter and the other passengers visit, dogs outnumber humans. Despite this, there is still such a strong sense of history, and of shared experience.

I liked the way in which Winter wrote about her voyage as both physical, and one of self-discovery. She searches, throughout, for her own belonging. As an English transplant to Newfoundland in her youth, she tells another passenger that she feels ‘”sort of at home on the ship, here, between homelands.”‘ She writes with a great deal of insight about selfhood, and the loss of her first home. It is clear, from very early on in the narrative, that this journey had a profound impact upon the author, something which she comes back to throughout.

Boundless is Winter’s first work of non-fiction, and I am really hoping that it isn’t the last. Her prose is excellent, and balances more informative passages with her own musings with a great deal of skill. Winter’s tone is incredibly engaging, and I loved exploring the Northwest Passage through her lens. She is a continually thoughtful guide to the Arctic region. I long to do a journey like this one sometime in the future, but for now, I can only thank Winter for allowing me to take part in her own travels, and for being so open and honest about everything she encountered. Boundless is a thorough, and quite excellent, piece of travel writing, which I read with a great deal of interest from cover to cover.

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‘Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ by Jean Sprackland ****

One of my favourite places to be is on the beach, and I have been lucky enough to visit them all over the world; from Australia’s Bondi Beach on a very breezy December day, to hidden turquoise coves in Croatia and Montenegro, and the sand-swept, dune-filled coasts of Northern France and Belgium. Unfortunately, at present, I live in a landlocked English county and, like so many others across the world, was long separated from the beach by numerous lockdowns and travel bans.

One piece of solace which I found during this time was in Jean Sprackland’s first nature book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which won the Portico Prize in 2012. Here, Sprackland has penned ‘a series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool’, which she recorded over a single calendar year. She explores, primarily, ‘what is lost and buried and then discovered… about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.’

Strands has been split into corresponding seasons, which is one of my favourite structures in which to present a nature book. I love to see how one place can differ so much from one season to the next; even from one month to the next. This is one of the main elements of focus for Sprackland; she is aware of every small change, and of what to expect as one month passes into the next. For her, this ‘stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit. It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity. It reinvents itself. It has a talent for concealment and revelation. Things turn up here; things go missing.’

In her preface, Sprackland immediately sets out that she has been walking along this particular beach for twenty years. For her, writing Strands is a bittersweet experience, as she is about to leave her home for London, and a new marriage. She knows that this is the last time in which she will be able to travel to Ainsdale Sands so often, and wished to record this process. She writes that over those two decades ‘… our relationship has grown complex and intimate. It has become, as places can, an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from here.’ She goes on to say: ‘The version I carry in my head is endlessly flexible, but of course the external place does not obey me at all. It remains stubbornly unknowable.’

Sprackland is also a poet, and she writes her prose using careful, memorable, and even sometimes sharp, vocabulary choices. She sees her beach with a poet’s eyes. It is, for her, ‘a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.’ She goes on to say that ‘This characteristic of the beach – its capacity to surprise and mystify – is what brings me back here, day after day, month after month.’

Alongside the usual items which plague coasts all over the world – primarily plastic and litter – there are some surprises in store for Sprackland. In the first chapter, which occurs in spring, for example, she comes across ‘three wrecked ships lying on the surface’ of the sand. These, she has never seen before. She realises that she must have ‘cycled over them, oblivious’ when they had previously been buried under the sand. These boats, she finds out after conversing with a friend, that these ships show themselves for a few weeks at a time before being reburied, sometimes for years at a time. She later says: ‘I’ve often noticed a kind of “rule of recurrence”: I find something unusual – something I’ve never seen here before – and almost immediately I find another the same, and then another. And certain kinds of objects come and go; they’re numerous when I visit one week, and have vanished by the next.’

Sprackland goes on to find so many different things during her wanderings – mermaid’s purses, which hold the eggs of sharks, skates, and rays; samphire; ‘a bicycle saddle, a knitting needle, a large bleached knuckle bone, a light bulb’; a swarm of ladybirds; even a ‘blister pack of Prozac’, and a message in a bottle. She describes the way in which the ‘detritus of our lives is washed, softened and given back to us cleansed of its dirt and shame. That’s the work of the sea. It comes in faithfully, on schedule, like an old-time religion, and washes away our sins.’ She also nods to the myriad places in which these items she finds start their journey, ‘from so many different sources and directions: from the hands of walkers and picnickers; from the air; from underneath the sand; and of course from the sea. In an age where science has unlocked so many of Earth’s secrets, and almost the entire planet has been mapped and imaged, our oceans and shores remain relatively unexplored. Each new discovery presents questions and mysteries.’

Alongside the physical landscape of her particular beach, Sprackland has written about the crushing changes which climate change is already bringing to the species which are found just off the coast. She also wishes to raise an awareness of just how much one single person can see them changing. She urges: ‘Those of us with beaches to walk on should be learning the language of the things we find there. We should be reading the signs.’ She writes with a great deal of insight, stating: ‘If in the course of opening our eyes to environmental realities we have lost some of our simple pleasures and amazements, we have replaced them with passionate collective attachments to a few powerful symbols of what is previous and threatened: the polar bear, the tiger, the wildflower meadow, and so on. Our losses are not so often focused on the mucous, the smelly and the commonplace.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Sprackland’s second nature book, These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards; indeed, I think about it often. Here, too, there is so much to consider, and to appreciate. Sprackland’s prose is often quite profound; she makes one stop and think throughout, with sentences such as the following: ‘It’s dizzying, the realisation that we spend our lives moving precariously on the outer skin of the planet, and that same skin contains all the stuff of history.’ She is a considerate and quite meditative author. Her prose is beautiful and attentive; there is a haunting appeal to it. As with These Silent Mansions, Strands is highly detailed, and so well researched; there is also such a visceral sense of place within it.

I love the way in which Sprackland blends her own observations with scientific facts, and the way in which she includes quotes from other writers, particularly poets. Strands is relatively introspective, and deals with such a comparatively small stretch of coastline, but Sprackland manages to discuss so much within its pages. It is an unusual nature book in its focus, and one which I would highly recommend.

If you are interested, you can read my review of Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions here.

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Ten Underrated Authors

I always feel mildly surprised when I read a book which I love, but which barely anyone else seems to have picked up. Of course, there are so many books in the world, and thousands of new ones being published every year, that we can sadly never get around to picking up everything which interests us. There is a real shame though, in enjoying an author’s voice so much, and realising that others, who would surely love it too, haven’t discovered it yet.

I find examples of this often; there are so many authors who make my favourites list that draw a blank with the readers in my life. This spurred me on to create a list of ten authors, all of whom I think are underrated, and all of whom I would urge you to read. I have chosen what I feel would be a great starting point for each author, and really hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, to pick up something new.

Harriet Scott Chessman

Start with: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001)

I picked up Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in a secondhand bookshop. I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but was captivated by its blurb. I took it home and, intrigued, began to read it the same day. I found myself pulled into the visually beautiful world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. Her sister, Lydia, posed for five of her most famous paintings, and the novella follows her primarily. Scott Chessman writes with such sensitivity about Lydia’s Bright’s Disease, which attacks her kidneys, and how she deals with the knowledge of her inevitable early death. Despite this, there is so much beauty in the book, and I still think about it often.

Julia Stuart

Start with: The Matchmaker of Périgord (2007)

I can’t remember when I first discovered Julia Stuart, but I have read each of her four novels to date with a great deal of delight. Although I would recommend all of them – and they are all rather different in what they set out to achieve – my absolute favourite has been The Matchmaker of Périgord. I am always drawn to novels about France, as any readers of this blog will surely know, and this novel, set in a southwestern corner of France, is just lovely. A barber, named Guillaume Ladoucette, is losing business, and decides instead to branch out into matchmaking. Along the way, he helps a great deal of unusual and quirky characters, and instills a great joy into his small village. I loved this amusing novel, and cannot wait to reread it.

Alice Jolly

Start with: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns (2015)

I spotted this in my local library whilst I still lived in my hometown, and was drawn in by the book’s title. After reading the blurb, I added it to the staggering pile of tomes already in my arms, and took it home with me. What I found in the book’s pages was a great deal of sadness balanced with hope, all revealed in the most beautiful prose. The main events of this self-published memoir revolve around the stillbirth of Jolly’s second baby, and her consequent difficulties in conceiving, as well as a surrogacy journey. It will be relatable to a lot of people, and although it is quite often difficult to read, I savoured every word, and greatly admired Jolly’s bravery in telling her own story.

Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Start with: Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959)

I must admit that Miss Plum and Miss Penny is the only book of Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s which I have read to date, but I feel that she will be an author whose work I adore. This novel, which tells of Miss Alison Penny, is amusing, a little silly, and rather charming. On the morning of her fortieth birthday, ‘spinster’ Miss Penny, who lives in a picturesque village, saves another woman – Miss Ada Plum – from drowning in the local duckpond. What follows took me by surprise at points, and kept my attention throughout. I must thank Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow for reprinting this one, as it may have passed me by otherwise!

Jo Baker

Start with: The Body Lies (2019)

I must admit that my absolute favourite of Jo Baker’s books is the beautiful historical novel The Picture Book, but The Body Lies is the first which I read, and one which I would highly recommend beginning with. I received a copy of the novel on Netgalley, and did not quite know what to expect, but what I found was a compelling and clever literary thriller. A writer moves to the countryside of the north of England, along with her young child, to work at a university; this is supposed to be a fresh start for her. Baker writes with such intelligence about sexual politics, and has created a deeply unsettling, and highly satisfying novel.

Joanna Cannan

Start with: Princes in the Land (1938)

The Persephone fans among you have probably heard of Joanna Cannan, a rather prolific writer who published over many different genres, from crime fiction to pony stories, and sister of the quite wonderful poet May Wedderburn Cannan. I was pulled into her novella, Princes in the Land, from the very first. We follow Patricia, who is lamenting about her children growing up and leaving home, and wondering where it leaves her in the world. Other reviewers have called this depressing, and I suppose it is to an extent, given its focus, but I thought it was beautifully written, and a very thoughtful piece.

Jesse Ball

Start with: Census (2018)

I try, as best I can, to keep up with contemporary American literature; I love it so much. It is often difficult to pick out authors whom I want to read immediately, but something about Jesse Ball caused me to scour my local library catalogues, and even to contemplate whether it would be worth ordering some of his books from the States, as they are often quite difficult to procure in the UK. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of his novels to date, and admire them for their unusualness. I would highly recommend starting, as I did, with the incredibly beautiful Census, which charts a relationship between a father and his son in a strange, changing world. You can read my full review here if you would like to.

Vendela Vida

Start with: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007)

I have been lucky enough to read all of Vendela Vida’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. She writes about highly believable characters in such beautiful language. One of the real strengths of her books is the way in which she sets the scene; she is like a painter, unfolding what she sees in front of the reader. This particular novel follows Clarissa, a twenty eight-year-old woman, who finds out after her father’s death that he was not really her father at all. This leads her on a journey to Lapland, to discover her origins. There is so much to love in this story, and love it I did.

Jessie Greengrass

Start with: Sight (2018)

Jessie Greengrass has released two novels and a short story collection to date, and all of them have really appealed to me. She focuses on different things, and each of her books is really very different, but Greengrass’ writing is something which has kept me coming back. Her first novel, Sight, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, revolves around three females from the same family, and their relationships with one another. There are moments of such beauty and clarity here, and it is definitely a novel which I will reread in future. You can find my full review of Sight here.

Kathleen Jamie

Start with: Findings (2005)

Kathleen Jamie is both a poet and nature writer, but it is through the latter that I first discovered her work. Published by the excellent Sort Of Books, one of my favourite houses, Jamie spends her time in Findings ‘simply stepping out to look’ at what is around her. There is much about the beautiful countryside of Scotland, a country which I lived in for three years, and the nature which she is lucky enough to see here. Findings is filled with exquisite prose, and it really gives one a feel for the main themes in her work, and her way with words.

Please let me know if you’re going to pick up any books by these authors, and also which your favourite underrated authors are!

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‘Letters to the Lady Upstairs’ by Marcel Proust ****

It should perhaps be a thing of shame that I pride myself on how many books I have read during my lifetime, but that I have never picked up anything by Proust. I’m not quite sure why this is; I am interested in his novels, and know just how inspirational his work has been to a great deal of other writers. He is regarded by many as one of the best, if not the best, writers of the twentieth century.

I can say that Proust has always been a writer on my radar, but I just didn’t know of a good starting point, and was perhaps a little intimidated by his seven-novel series, In Search of Lost Time. When I saw the beautifully designed Letters to the Lady Upstairs though, I knew that I had found the right path into his work.

Twenty-three of the twenty-six letters in this relatively short collection were written by Proust to his upstairs neighbour, Madame Marie Williams, between 1909 and 1919. the others were penned to her husband. They have been translated from their original French by Lydia Davis, and were first published in English almost a century later, in 2017. The letters were not originally dated, so these have been guessed at to the best of the ability of those working on the book. Due to new information coming to light, the order of the letters in the English edition is different to that of the French; here, they are shown ‘in the way that seemed the most logical’.

The letters here reveal ‘the comings and goings of a Paris building’; to be precise, 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, where Proust lived and wrote for over a decade. Marie Williams lived in the apartment above with her American dentist husband, whose practice was also in the building. A great deal about Proust’s correspondent is not known, although sadly, she committed suicide in 1931. Her responses to Proust have also been lost.

Much can be found in these letters about the day-to-life of Proust. He complains constantly, although strangely very politely, about the noise which surrounds him, and which always stops him from sleeping. There is much, too, about the characters in Proust’s fiction, which he is thrilled that Madame Williams enjoys; in the autumn of 1914, he tells her: ‘At least I would have the joy of knowing that those lovely lucid eyes had rested on these pages’. Having not read any of his fiction yet, I must admit that this meant relatively little to me, but I’m sure it might be something I come back to in future once I have finally delved into his oeuvre.

This volume also includes an afterword written by the translator, and a foreword by Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tabié. Tabié writes that some of these letters were curiously sent via the postal system, despite the proximity of sender and receiver. Tabié goes on to say that ‘the tone of the letters is that of friendship, of ever growing intimacy, between two solitary people.’

Like Proust, Madame Williams was something of a recluse, and was also suffering from an unknown ailment. In the second letter, for instance, Proust – who seems to find real pleasure in talking about how ill he is – writes: ‘It saddens me very much to learn that you are ill. If bed does not bore you too much, I believe that in itself it exerts a very sedative effect on the kidneys.’ He continues to ask her, throughout the letters which follow, what he can possibly do to alleviate her discomfort. In what is estimated to be the August of 1909, he says: ‘I am saddened to learn that you, too, have been suffering. It seems natural to me that I should be ill. But at least illness ought to spare Youth, Beauty and Talent!’

Proust comes across as an extremely gentle correspondent, aware of what is going on in Madame Williams’ life, and offering her one kindness after another. If I were Madame Williams, I must admit that I might have found his letters a little annoying at times, given the amount of time he spends being preoccupied about noise and illness. He is also rather pedantic, and there is something about him which I found rather prickly, and holier than thou. He writes to her in November 1915, for example, ‘I am a little sorry that you have not received my last letters (though they were addressed I believe quite correctly)’. He seems keen to let her know how accommodating he is as a neighbour; in the same month, he is far too ill to attend a concert, but ‘when by chance a musician came to see me in the evening, I stop him from making music for me so that the noise may not bother you.’

Although we only get to see one side of their correspondence, it is clear that there is a tenderness which Proust holds for his neighbour, and their connection does visibly grow as time passes. I personally really enjoy one-sided correspondences, and have read quite a few of them to date. I like watching how one writer’s letters change over time, and what becomes more and less important to them as years pass. It is interesting, too, to imagine what might have been included in the responses. The two seem to rarely have met in person; Proust makes veiled excuses throughout as to why he cannot meet her physically, due primarily to his ‘attacks’.

Proust is certainly an interesting figure, and one whom I would like to learn a lot more about. I enjoyed Davis’ comments offered about the building in which Proust lived, which is now part of a bank building. She writes that this was the first place in which he ever lived alone, and that when he first moved in, ‘he considered the apartment to be no more than a transitional residence.’ She goes on to say that Proust was ‘well-liked by his neighbours, on the whole, for the same qualities so evident in his letters to Mme Williams: his grace, eloquence, thoughtfulness, sympathy, gestures or gratitude.’

Letters to the Lady Upstairs is a revealing volume, which takes little time to read, but which lingers in the mind for a long time afterward. Proust captures so much of the city, despite largely staying indoors with his illness and the noise, and he relays everything – even his complaints – quite beautifully. As Davis says, ‘Follow every reference in these letters, and Proust’s world opens out before us.’

I am keen to pick up more of his work in the near future, and so would highly recommend this as a good starting point. I’m sure that if you are already familiar with Proust’s novels, this will hold appeal for you too. Overall, Letters to the Lady Upstairs is quite fascinating, and introduces one to two very interesting historical figures – one whom a lot is known about, and another who has faded quite into obscurity.

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Eight More Great Audiobooks

I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to audiobooks whilst pottering about over the last couple of years, and wanted to put together a list of those which I have particularly enjoyed, and which I would recommend. I am lucky that my local library has such an excellent and varied collection, which I am slowly working my way through.

1. Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir by Amy Tan

‘In Where the Past Begins, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement Amy Tan is at her most intimate in revealing the truths and inspirations that underlie her extraordinary fiction. By delving into vivid memories of her traumatic childhood, confessions of self-doubt in her journals, and heartbreaking letters to and from her mother, she gives evidence to all that made it both unlikely and inevitable that she would become a writer. Through spontaneous storytelling, she shows how a fluid fictional state of mind unleashed near-forgotten memories that became the emotional nucleus of her novels.

Tan explores shocking truths uncovered by family memorabilia—the real reason behind an IQ test she took at age six, why her parents lied about their education, mysteries surrounding her maternal grandmother—and, for the first time publicly, writes about her complex relationship with her father, who died when she was fifteen. Supplied with candor and characteristic humor, Where the Past Begins takes readers into the idiosyncratic workings of her writer’s mind, a journey that explores memory, imagination, and truth, with fiction serving as both her divining rod and link to meaning.’

2. A Year in Paris: Season by Season in the City of Light by John Baxter

‘From the incomparable John Baxter, award-winning author of the bestselling The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, a sumptuous and definitive portrait of Paris through the seasons, highlighting the unique tastes, sights, and changing personality of the city in spring, summer, fall, and winter.

When the common people of France revolted in 1789, one of the first ways they chose to correct the excesses of the monarchy and the church was to rename the months of the year. Selected by poet and playwright Philippe-Francois-Nazaire Fabre, these new names reflected what took place at that season in the natural world; Fructidor was the month of fruit, Floréal that of flowers, while the winter wind (vent) dominated Ventôse.

Though the names didn’t stick, these seasonal rhythms of the year continue to define Parisians, as well as travelers to the city. As acclaimed author and long-time Paris resident John Baxter himself recollects, “My own arrival in France took place in Nivôse, the month of snow, and continued in Pluviôse, the season of rain. To someone coming from Los Angeles, where seasons barely existed, the shock was visceral. Struggling to adjust, I found reassurance in the literature, music, even the cuisine of my adoptive country, all of which marched to the inaudible drummer of the seasons.”

Devoting a section of the book to each of Fabre’s months, Baxter draws upon Paris’s literary, cultural and artistic past to paint an affecting, unforgettable portrait of the city. Touching upon the various ghosts of Paris past, from Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, to Claude Debussy to MFK Fisher to Francois Mitterrand, Baxter evokes the rhythms of the seasons in the City of Light, and the sense of wonder they can arouse for all who visit and live there.

A melange of history, travel reportage, and myth, of high culture and low, A Year in Paris is vintage John Baxter: a vicarious thrill ride for anyone who loves Paris.’

3. When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

‘November 1918. On the cusp of the end of the First World War, a uniformed soldier is arrested in Durham Cathedral. It quickly becomes clear that he has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there.
 
The soldier is given the name Adam and transferred to a rehabilitation home where his doctor James tries everything he can to help Adam remember who he once was. There’s just one problem. Adam doesn’t want to remember.
 
Unwilling to relive the trauma of war, Adam has locked his mind away, seemingly for good. But when a newspaper publishes Adam’s photograph, three women come forward, each just as certain that Adam is their relative and that he should go home with them.
 
But does Adam really belong with any of these women? Or is there another family waiting for him to come home?

Based on true events, When I Come Home Again is a deeply moving and powerful story of a nation’s outpouring of grief, and the search for hope in the aftermath of the First World War.’

4. Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

‘A novel of haunting metaphysical suspense about an elderly widow whose life is upturned when she finds a cryptic note on a walk in the woods that ultimately makes her question everything about her new home.

While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to area, having moved her from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one – one that strikes closer to home.

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, ‘Death in Her Hands’ asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both guide us closer to the truth and keep us at bay from it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, only this time the stakes have never been higher.’

5. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

6. The Most Precious of Cargoes by Jean-Claude Grumberg

‘Set during the height of World War II, a powerful and unsettling tale about a woodcutter and his wife, who finds a mysterious parcel thrown from a passing train.

Once upon a time in an enormous forest lived a woodcutter and his wife. The woodcutter is very poor and a war rages around them, making it difficult for them to put food on the table. Yet every night, his wife prays for a child.

A Jewish father rides on a train holding twin babies. His wife no longer has enough milk to feed both children. In hopes of saving them both, he wraps his daughter in a shawl and throws her into the forest.

While foraging for food, the wife finds a bundle, a baby girl wrapped in a shawl. Although she knows harboring this baby could lead to her death, she takes the child home.

Set against the horrors of the Holocaust and told with a fairytale-like lyricism, The Most Precious of Cargoes is a fable about family and redemption which reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.’

7. Wildwood by Roger Deakin

‘Here, published for the first time in the United States, is the last book by Roger Deakin, famed British nature writer and icon of the environmentalist movement. In Deakin’s glorious meditation on wood, the “fifth element”as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man’s profound and enduring connection with trees.

Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes “coppicing” in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.

As the world’s forests are whittled away, Deakin’s sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler’s tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world’s marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.’

8. The High House by Jessie Greengrass

‘Francesca is Caro’s stepmother, and Pauly’s mother. A scientist, she can see what is going to happen.


The high house was once her holiday home; now looked after by locals Grandy and Sally, she has turned it into an ark, for when the time comes. The mill powers the generator; the orchard is carefully pruned; the greenhouse has all its glass intact. Almost a family, but not quite, they plant, store seed, and watch the weather carefully.


A stunning novel of the extraordinary and the everyday, The High House explores how we get used to change that once seemed unthinkable, how we place the needs of our families against the needs of others – and it asks us who, if we had to, we would save.’

Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which of these catches your interest? Have you read, or listened to, any of them?

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‘Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night’ by Tiffany Francis ***

I very much enjoyed Sigri Sandberg’s An Ode to Darkness (review here) when I read it back in 2020, and have been on the lookout for similar books since. When I spotted Tiffany Francis’ Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night, I was suitably intrigued, and reserved a copy from my local library. In this, her second book, Francis ‘explores the nocturnal landscapes of Britain and Europe and investigates how our experiences of the night-time world have permeated human history, art and folklore.’

Dark Skies has been marketed as Francis’ account of travelling around ‘different nightscapes’, from witnessing 24-hour daylight in the Gulf of Finland, to the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle amidst three months of constant darkness. Francis aims to delve into the history of ‘ancient rituals and seasonal festivals that for thousands of years humans have linked with the light and dark halves of our year.’ At the outset, she writes about the reasoning behind her exploration, and also poses quite poignant questions: ‘Everything we do depends on the sun rising every day, but half of our lives are spent in darkness. How much energy continues to burst from the landscape after the sun goes down? And by giving in to sleep when the world grows dark, how much of life are we missing out on?’

Throughout history, our lives have been shaped, to quite an extent, by darkness. Our ancestors often relied upon constellations to guide them, and tended to rise with the sun, and go to bed as soon as it became dark. They underwent a quite natural process called ‘second sleep’, in which they would wake for an hour or two around midnight, work on projects or simply relax, and go to sleep again afterwards. This has largely stopped in the modern world, partly due to our more structured days, and also because of the steep levels of artificial light which surround us at all times. It is becoming increasingly difficult, in the 2020s, to find somewhere which is completely dark.

Francis begins her journey in late September, just after her relationship with the often-mentioned “Dave” has ended. She writes: ‘… the thought of lingering on in Hampshire was enough to send me instead to Norfolk, to temporary distraction from the loneliness that had started to creep into my body.’ She travels relatively far from her home, largely throughout the United Kingdom, but also within some other European countries.

Francis undoubtedly captures some really nice moments throughout. In Tromsø, in Norway’s Arctic Circle, she sees the Northern Lights, and describes them thus: ‘A single ribbon of light had appeared from nowhere in the sky above the lake… It was barely visible at first, a flickering serpent waking from sleep… As the light inched across the sky in wandering, waving movements, a sliver of blue and green seemingly without purpose or direction… And so the ribbon widened, it seemed to harvest colours from all over the world, reflecting the cerulean waters of the Caribbean sea, the lime greens of sphagnum moss, the electric blue of a cobalt crust fungus, the pearlescent aperture inside a seashell. In that moment, the entire universe seemed to be captured, drifting through the sky before me in a glass thread.’

I enjoyed some of Francis’ writing, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the nature around her. Some of her sentences though do feel a bit overdone, and too romanticised, at times. I found some of the comparisons which she makes a little strange, I must admit; for instance, she describes herself as akin to ‘a wasp on a yoga ball’. This is something which I have never heard before, and I really have no idea what it is supposed to mean, as even in the context it wasn’t particularly clear. There are also touches of melodrama here, which I did not appreciate; she writes, for example, that a forest she was walking through ‘was so creepy I half-imagined we might be strangled by some devil-possessed ivy vines and dragged into the trees, a midnight feast for a gang of carnivorous plants lurching in the dark…’. Considering that Dark Skies is supposed to be a piece of nature writing, this felt highly unnecessary.

There are some glaringly obvious mistakes which have been included here too. The author claims, wrongly, that Mount Snowdon in Wales, at 1,085 metres above sea level, is the highest point in the British Isles. In actuality, Ben Nevis in Scotland is almost 300 metres taller, standing at 1,345 metres. I have no idea how such errors would have got past an editor. A lot of the book, indeed, could have done with some clearer editing, and this would, I am sure, have made it far more readable, and a bit less frustrating in places.

There is a slightly disjointed feel to the narrative throughout. Francis tends to begin a paragraph with one theme, and then moves to writing either about something completely different, or more often than not about herself and Dave, before circling back to something mentioned pages and pages beforehand. A lot of tangents are taken, and it sometimes makes this rather a jumbled, and largely unfocused, read. She also poses a lot of questions in her narrative, but never makes a single attempt to provide answers, or even to muse at length about what she has asked.

Dark Skies has received very mixed reviews since its 2019 publication. Many readers – and I do agree with them – have said that the book has been poorly marketed. Rather than an exploration of the night, and of darkness, Dark Skies focuses far more upon the memoir side of things than anything else. There is actually comparatively little about the ‘dark skies’ of the book’s title, particularly when one considers how much is written about her on-again, off-again relationship with the aforementioned Dave. I wish that many of the personal details here had been left out. Francis appears almost worryingly eager to share every single detail about herself, and about her relationship, to a reading public consisting largely of strangers. Oddly, for a twenty-first century woman who describes herself as a naturalist, I also did not feel as though she is always entirely respectful of the landscapes around her; she says, for instance, that it is ‘weirdly fun to pull off’ lichen from tree trunks – something which I would never personally dream of doing.

Dark Skies is not at all what I was expecting, and it does feel as though its marketing is quite misleading. It meanders here and there, and has very little structure to it on the whole. I also do not feel as though Francis really met her own brief here. She does do some things in the dark, like visiting an outdoor spa in Germany’s Black Forest, but her exploration of such occurrences, and of the darkness itself, does not go anywhere near far enough. Even when Francis writes of being in the dark, she is thinking of other things; there is no complete focus given to the darkness.

I had difficulty rating this title. It is largely for her lovely and quite informative chapters on Scandinavia – which were well written and executed, and actually set out to explore the darkness on some level – that I have rated this book as a 3-star read; without them, I could not have given it more than 2 stars. Dark Skies really did not match my expectations of what a book about night skies and darkness should include, and I found myself so disinterested in the very long portions written about her relationship, which served to overshadow the rest of the narrative. So much could have been explored and achieved here; it feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.

Whilst I do not feel as though Dark Skies at all meets what it promises, Francis seems like a lovely person, with a great deal of talent. She and I have a lot of hobbies in common, from history and archaeology to Moomins and knitting, and I found myself relating to quite a lot of what she wrote. I would be so interested to read her other work in future, as I feel she has a lot to offer as both an author and an environmentalist.

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Books Set in Ireland

I have been lucky enough to visit Northern Ireland, and the Republic, extensively in my life, and I have found such peace in the rolling green landscapes, and the sheer amount of history which the beautiful buildings all around me hold. I have always been drawn to fiction set there, and have also recently read – or listened to – a couple of non-fiction tomes by Irish authors. I know that there is a great deal of interest in Ireland on the blogosphere, so I thought it would be a nice idea to collect together my recommendations for fiction and non-fiction set within both Northern Ireland, and the Republic.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter might not be as harmless as she seems.

Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too.

The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect?

Dark, propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

‘Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibition for a beloved artist, the renowned late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two enigmatic outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: A chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her; and at work, an odd woman comes forward with a mysterious connection to Robert Locke’s life and his most famous work, the Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she realizes she must decide what is the truth, whether she can continue to live with a lie, and what the consequences might be were she to fully unravel the mysteries in both the life of Robert Locke and her own. In this gripping and wonderfully written debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that define us.’

3. Wildwoods: The Magic of Ireland’s Native Woodlands by Richard Nairn

‘Richard Nairn has spent a lifetime studying – and learning from – nature. When an opportunity arose for him to buy a small woodland filled with mature native trees beside a fast-flowing river, he set about understanding all its moods and seasons, discovering its wildlife secrets and learning how to manage it properly.

Wildwoods is a fascinating account of his journey over a typical year. Along the way, he uncovers the ancient roles of trees in Irish life, he examines lost skills such as coppicing and he explores new uses of woodlands for forest schools, foraging and rewilding. Ultimately, Wildwoods inspires all of us to pay attention to what nature can teach us.’

4. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

‘In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.

In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.’

5. Asking for It by Louise O’Neill

‘It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma.

The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does.

Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…’

6. A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

‘In A World of Love, an uneasy group of relations are living under one roof at Montefort, a decaying manor in the Irish countryside. When twenty-year-old Jane finds in the attic a packet of love letters written years ago by Guy, her mother’s one-time fiance who died in World War I, the discovery has explosive repercussions. It is not clear to whom the letters are addressed, and their appearance begins to lay bare the strange and unspoken connections between the adults now living in the house. Soon, a girl on the brink of womanhood, a mother haunted by love lost, and a ruined matchmaker with her own claim on the dead wage a battle that makes the ghostly Guy as real a presence in Montefort as any of the living.’

7. Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane

‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they? Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich, silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.

Watching from the sidelines, their friend Sylvester regrets that Jane should be ‘loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by that frightful Jessica’, but decides it’s none of his business. When the Irish gentleman George Playfair meets Jane, however, he thinks otherwise and entices her to Ireland where the battle for her devotion begins.’

8. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

‘The stunning new novel from highly acclaimed author William Trevor is a brilliant, subtle, and moving story of love, guilt, and forgiveness. The Gault family leads a life of privilege in early 1920s Ireland, but the threat of violence leads the parents of nine-year-old Lucy to decide to leave for England, her mother’s home. Lucy cannot bear the thought of leaving Lahardane, their country house with its beautiful land and nearby beach, and a dog she has befriended. On the day before they are to leave, Lucy runs away, hoping to convince her parents to stay. Instead, she sets off a series of tragic misunderstandings that affect all of Lahardane’s inhabitants for the rest of their lives.’

Please let me know if any of these catch your interest, and also which books set in Ireland are your favourites to date.

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‘On Trails: An Exploration’ by Robert Moor ****

Robert Moor has won several awards for his non-fiction writing, and his first full-length publication was On Trails: An Exploration (2016). He is lauded on the book’s blurb as ‘a brilliant new literary voice’, who has paved the way for ‘a groundbreaking exploration’ of the humble trail.

Moor hiked the Appalachian trail, which stretches between Maine and Georgia on America’s East Coast, in 2009. He writes that his memories of this enormous journey ‘consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth. The vistas from many of the mountaintops were blotted out. Shrouded in mist, rain hood up, eyes down cast, mile after mile, month after month. I had little else to do but study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.’ On this trip, he started to consider the multitude of paths which exist beneath our feet in every corner of the world. Much of the time, these trails – whether natural or manmade – are taken somewhat for granted. Over the course of the following seven years, Moor took the decision to travel extensively, exploring trails of all kinds. Throughout On Trails, he blends his own travels with science, philosophy, historical facts, and nature writing.

For Moor, the simple trail poses a lot of questions, some of them quite abstract and difficult to answer. These include, ‘how does order emerge from chaos?’ and, ‘ultimately, how does each of us pick a path through life?’ These philosophical musings are touched upon from time to time, but his focus is largely placed upon the physical trail.

Trails are grounding; they keep us focused, as well as promoting a sense of well-trodden safety, and almost a sense of community, in that others have walked along a path before you, and will continue to do so afterwards. In his prologue, Moor acknowledges quite how pivotal trails are: ‘Piece by piece, I began to cobble together a panoramic view of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet: on every scale of life, from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, creatures can be found relying on trails to reduce an overwhelming array of options to a single expeditious route. Without trails, we would be lost.’ He goes on to write that ‘Paths, in their very structure… blear the divide between wilderness and civilization, leaders and followers, self and other, old and new, natural and artificial.’

At the very end of his prologue, Moor notes: ‘Throughout the history of life on Earth, we have created pathways to guide our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity, and preserve wisdom. At the same time, trails have shaped our bodies, sculpted our landscapes, and transformed our cultures. In the maze of the modern world, the wisdom of trails is as essential as ever… To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.’

Moor goes on to recount his exploration of trails, from visiting fossil trails – the oldest known paths in the world – in Newfoundland, Canada, to touring a safari park in the United States with a PhD student studying migratory patterns of herd animals. He also spends time working – not always successfully – as a sheep herder for a traditional Navajo family. Throughout this more personal narrative, he writes at length about the creation of the Appalachian Trail, and of several designated national parks throughout the United States. He includes a lot of detail from a scientific standpoint, and makes everything so accessible and readable.

The author has considered a great deal when putting together this quite fascinating book. He writes intelligently about crowd theory, the creation of cities which have grown organically with no external planning, and the reading of animal trails across the world. He also considers the Internet, and the pathways which have been created within it.

Like many people, I am sure, I had not considered trails in a great deal of detail before picking up Moor’s book, and had more often than not taken them for granted. Now, though, I am far more aware of where I am walking, and thinking more deeply about when the paths which I choose to take every day were laid. On Trails is informative, thoughtful, and aware. I greatly appreciated the enormous amount of research which has gone into the tome, and very much enjoyed the blending of so many different elements in its telling. On Trails has proven to be far more wide-reaching than I initially expected, and it feels like the author has taken a truly fresh approach in its telling.